Oct 13, 2020

Ep 282: Seth Kofi Debrah - Senior Research Scientific Officer, Ghana Atomic Energy Commission

Senior Research Scientific Officer
Ghana Atomic Energy Commission
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Show notes

Ghana’s Entrance into Nuclear (0:00-11:06)
Seth Kofi Debrah shares his path into the nuclear power sector and his role in established a nuclear development plan for Ghana

Q: What is your background and how did you get into the nuclear space?
A: Seth Kofi Debrah studied physics at Kwame Nkrumah University Science & Technology in Ghana, later pursuing his Master’s and PhD at the University of Ghana. The Ghana Atomic Energy Commission recruited Seth Kofi as a research scientist while he was still in school. He was first assigned to the Ghana Research Reactor with a focus on physics. Later, Seth Kofi had to get more involved in the nuclear engineering side of research, including hydraulics. A few years ago, he was moved from the reactor center to the Graduate School of Nuclear and Allied Sciences and later was brought into the nuclear power problem. Seth Kofi looked up to Albert Einstein when he was growing up, which led to his interest in physics. He wasn’t looking to get into the nuclear industry as a career, but once Seth Kofi started studying nuclear physics, it became a subject that he wanted to delve into further. Ghana’s research reactor is a 30 kilowatt Chinese Miniature Neutron Source Reactor (MNSR). It’s main purpose is for irradiation training for engineers and physicists within the country. The government at the time tried to build a bigger research reactor, but were not able to procure one until 1995 through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Only five of these reactors are in use around the world. The original design required a highly enriched uranium reactor, but has since been changed to a low enriched uranium reactor, Ghana being the first country to make the transition. Ghana’s President saw nuclear energy as one of the major, strategic infrastructures that needs to be built. Right after the Akosombo Dam, which has a capacity of 900 megawatts, was built in the 1950’s, the government wanted to enter into the nuclear field. There were many years of ups and downs until 2008, when the then-government intended to actually pursue nuclear power. A lot of energy, momentum, and intellectual progress was lost over the years of ups and downs. In 2012, the Ghana Nuclear Power Program Organization was established and taxed to undergo the phase one activities of the program. In 2015, the now-director, Professor Nyarko, established the Nuclear Power entity within the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission. This commission houses most of the research scientists in the country’s nuclear field and the group decided to follow the ideology of the IAEA. Ghana has completed Phase 1 studies that show the government is ready to make a commitment to nuclear. The Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) has been established as a Phase 2 activity and Nuclear Power Ghana is in the process of building competencies as an operator.

Electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa (11:06-26:01)
A look at how supply chain development for the nuclear sector impacts the electrification of the Sub-Saharan African region

Q: Since Ghana has invested so much energy into the future of energy and moved onto Phase 2 - which is preparation for construction and site selection - how is the mood in the country? Do people know about this project and have communities accepted it?
A: People are afraid of what they don’t understand and there is much perception about nuclear that needs to be corrected. Seth Kofi Debrah found, through a survey, over 50% of the people that would like to see nuclear energy come on board. Less than 40% of people didn’t want nuclear power because they viewed it as dangerous. But everything is dangerous. If the Akosombo Dam breaks, the whole capital city of Ghana is gone. The basic understanding of the sun is that a nuclear reaction is ongoing in the sun. Nuclear radiation is a natural phenomenon which has been around since the world was created. In the capital city, a lot of people are willing to accept this, but the biggest issue may be where the plant will be situated or the electricity rate outside the city. The Ghana Atomic Energy Commission is trying to push the stakeholder engagement within these areas. Some of the land in Ghana is handled by chiefs, not by the government. They are also undertaking a nationwide survey and utilizing a third party to increase credibility for the program. Coronavirus has brought a lot of things into perspective. The supply chain is going to change and the government needs to think about how it will become autonomous within projects and energy systems. Ghana undertook an industrial survey, giving them a fair idea of how to elevate the supply chain, especially during construction, to achieve the quality that the nuclear industry seeks. This is a challenge that Ghana is willing to take on and looks to solve as soon as possible. It is nearly impossible to get 100% autonomous, but it is very possible to get to a place in which the country can sustain the growth of the project and not delay any issues that need to be addressed in this context. Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the lowest electrification rates in the world. The grid is being connected so electricity can be shared and some of the boundaries can be pushed. Many of these countries are land-locked and most don’t have enough water to generate hydroelectricity. Ghana’s energy policy highlights the goal of becoming an energy hub to supply energy to the region. Without energy, these countries are going nowhere. Ghana is in a good position to assist the neighboring countries. If the nuclear program comes into places and goes into the integrated grid, there will be enough energy for people to progress, not just in Ghana, but in the whole of Africa. Africa is the richest continent on the planet in terms of resources. What they don’t have is the energy to actually refine these resources and push it out in a certain product in a certain way. Ghana has gone through various governments and political parties with different ideas about nuclear power. Various political parties have been engaged on both sides. Information has been consistently provided to the leadership of Parliament, where majority and minority are both represented. The focus in communication is that nuclear energy cannot just be “touched” on and off.

Nuclear’s Role in Industrialization (26:01-38:13)
How the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission is focusing on educating its young citizens and preparing for an industrialized future

Q: A common criticism of nuclear power is that it is expensive to build and the projects take a long time. The director of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission released a construction start date in 2023, with a six year timeline from beginning to end of construction. How is the agency looking as ways to avoid these delays?
A: Seth Kofi Debrah’s research of construction projects has shown that the only ones that run over in terms of budgets or timelines are megaprojects. These projects are complex and it’s not particular only to nuclear. Ghana has considered all these things in terms of risks and mitigations to these project overruns. Programs must be built to keep people interested so they understand what is going on. Another program focuses on the junior high schools and getting these students interested in senior high schools and nuclear energy. If this person can be kept interested in career lines that can be built, they will carry the message out for you. COVID has slowed down engagement programs, but nuclear needs to be continuously drawn into the people. Ghana is looking at this program critically to keep it interesting and apply it to the culture of the people. The hope is that the neighboring countries also understand the program, because people are very skeptical about nuclear and Ghana does not want to be drawn back by their neighbors. Bringing nuclear power to Ghana is not just an energy project, but a strategic project that needs to be carried out to give a future to the next generation. Nuclear power has many beautiful aspects. It is not just energy, it affects the economy in every way, including how people think and live. The program comprehensive report details these impacts as a requirement for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the nuclear program. As a country, Ghana has some of the key institutions being established for industrialization. Ghana is looking into the development of the aluminum industry, which requires a lot of energy. Coal is not going to power it, because it has its own pitfalls when it comes to energy security. Coal financing in this era is much more difficult than nuclear, so the energy must come from nuclear. Ghana cannot develop as a country if the industries don’t have the energy support they need to grow. The comprehensive report has woven industrialization into the nuclear, including the economic plan and even the water sector, since nuclear can produce clean water through desalination.

Ghana’s Relationship with Nuclear (38:13-51:05)
An overview of the challenges and opportunities in Ghana as it looks to bring its first nuclear power plant online

Q: Does climate change play a part in the conversation you’re having or have you found much more effective communication strategies to help people understand the benefits of nuclear energy with the project you are running right now?
A: The Ghana Atomic Energy Commission focuses on communication the same thing but to different people in different ways. When speaking to governments and industry, the focus is on economic aspects, but climate change also plays a large role. There have been talks about solving climate change issues with renewables, but there needs to be a consensus and realization within the international community that renewables alone are not going to cut it. There needs to be a way to bring nuclear into the agenda. To deal with the issue of climate change head on, nuclear energy needs to be considered as one of the sources in the energy portfolio to make things work. Until that point is reached, no progress can be made. Germany has invested so much in renewables, but are not seeing the effect when it comes to climate change. Last year, Ghana came to a definite conclusion that, without nuclear, the country cannot achieve the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) for CO2 emissions. Seth Kofi Debrah’s major concerns, as he manages the technical part of Ghana’s nuclear project, are related to financing. A country like Ghana might not be able to put out a bid invitation and specifications. Seth Kofi is concerned about Ghana’s ability to attract the needed vendor that can bring financing to the project. So much has been done to prove that Ghana is a strong partner. Ghana wants to make a knowledgeable commitment and build systems and structures so vendors can put in the financing into the project. Political support is not a problem, because all the political parties in Ghana have supported nuclear power at a point in time. Seth Kofi is excited to see a working nuclear plant in Ghana in the next 20 years. Ghana has the biggest chunk of young people who do not have a clear idea of a career path or interests. All they have known is what is around them. An operating nuclear power plant can be the “new oil” industry, where people clamor to work in the industry and fight for positions. In the next 20 years, Seth Kofi sees two or three plants operating, once the first plant is established. Other plans include small modular reactors (SMR), because Ghana’s grid is not very big. Small plants could fit into the grid perfectly and different technologies are being watched by Ghana.

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